Freedom in Fiction: Mansfield Park

“Wretchedly did [Sir Thomas] feel, that with all the cost and care of an anxious and expensive education, he had brought up his daughters, without…his being acquainted with their character and temper.”

Graduation season begins this weekend. With young Oregonians taking their next steps in life, why not revisit a classic story about young people setting out into the world of new jobs, independent incomes, first homes, debt, leisure, and love?

Of all Jane Austen’s novels, Mansfield Park is probably the most misunderstood and underrated. Unlike Austen’s more popular tales of upper-class English gentry, Mansfield does not star a confident young woman from a prominent family. Instead, Fanny Price is a shy teenager, dependent on wealthy relatives, who says little in public and hates attention. Mansfield is the only Austen novel in which the full force of a cynical world comes crashing down on an inexperienced teenage girl who seems least equipped to fight it.

The most contemplative of Austen’s works, Mansfield is not so much about a young girl’s search for love as it is a careful study of how not to lose oneself while trying to “make it” in the world. Because Fanny is a quiet person, she observes her peers while they hash out among themselves what is important to their lives and how they judge what they encounter. They debate―often acrimoniously―what their career choices should be, how much money they stand to make, what prestige they can earn in the eyes of others, and what are the criteria by which they should evaluate these decisions.

As their friendships unfold, the young adults of Mansfield Park don’t appear much different from today’s college students. In the brief window of time in which they settle their ideals, professions, friends, and spouses, they show each other their true colors. They discover they have irreconcilable worldviews. They decide what they can and can’t live with. Their romantic and financial decisions bear fruit.

Henry Crawford and his sister Mary, friends of Fanny’s relatives, excuse their personal shortcomings by their upbringing. Raised without the example of stable, responsible adults, they don’t have the confidence (or the will) to operate from a higher set of principles than convenience, social convention, and popular opinions. They admit they don’t have the capacity to trust others or to be reliable in their relationships. Mary is socially adept and attractive, but her cynical biases against concepts and values beyond her personal experiences are crippling. Her intellectual and romantic clashes with Fanny’s favorite cousin reveal the depth of their different approaches to discerning one’s path in life.

The Crawfords had lacked guidance, but Fanny’s cousins have the opposite problem: Sir Thomas confuses his children’s abiding by conventional rules of behavior with authentic character development. Sir Thomas “had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition; and of the necessity of self-denial and humility, he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them.”

When three of his four children become involved in public scandals, Sir Thomas’s pain as a parent comes mostly from the realization that he does not truly know who they are. He knows them from the outside―how they tried to do what he expected of them while in his presence―without being acquainted with their minds, hearts, values, and aspirations. Their choices surprise him.

On the other hand, Fanny, despite her social and financial dependence and shy temperament, knows herself. Lacking self-deception or illusions about what will make her happiest in life, she is truly independent on a personal level. When morally unreliable (but financially eligible) Henry suggests that by becoming involved with him, Fanny could bring out the best in him, she delivers her most famous line: “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.” By calling him to take responsibility for his own conscience, and refusing to make him a romantic “project,” Fanny shows she understands equal relationships. Her refusal to compromise her self-knowledge by being mismatched frees her to seek a healthy relationship. She and the man she really loves are the only young couple in the novel who do not subscribe to, or settle for, a transactional view of friendship.

Mansfield Park and Fanny Price have drawn acerbic criticism from writers who cannot “like” her and wish the novel “came down” on the side of the sparkling, au courant Mary rather than the quiet, conservative Fanny. That the characters make modern readers uncomfortable says more about what we value, and what we think about how to treat other people, than perhaps we want to admit. The contrast between Mary and Fanny is exactly what we are meant to see: No matter how clever she is, Mary is tragic because she will not give up her self-centeredness; Fanny is heroic because she won’t be browbeaten into going along with the crowd.

Personal authenticity requires the ability to say no, to find happiness in simple things, to value one’s primary relationships, to resist the urge to hide from oneself in a blur of activities and friendships that mask a restless spirit, and to make choices that resonate with one’s true self. At a crossroads in life—like high school or college graduation, or any new beginning—these are crucial reflections deserving deep thought. The most important decisions a person will ever make involve choosing a state in life, establishing a healthy outlook on one’s career and finances, and loving a good person. Each involves surrounding ourselves with a set of people and activities that either will enable or inhibit us from being who we ought to be. By remaining steadfast under tremendous pressure, Fanny Price proves not to be Austen’s weakest heroine, but her strongest.


British television’s 2007 Mansfield Park is a condensed but faithful―and charming―movie adaptation which remains true to Austen’s characterization and the most important themes of the novel. The 1999 feature film is seriously flawed. It alters characters, including Fanny’s, in key ways and introduces plot elements that distract from the meaning of the novel. The 1983 miniseries is faithful in both characterization and plot, but it is missing the production values audiences are used to in Austen films made since the early 1990s.

Do You Support the Free Market, But…?

I first wrote in 2003 about what I call “The Statement”:

“I support the free market just as much as you do, but….”

I had been hearing versions of The Statement in and around political and business circles for years. It impinged on one of the first issues Cascade Policy Institute tackled in the year of our founding, 1991. The city of Portland was planning to franchise residential garbage service (which it eventually did at the expense of consumers). At the time Portland was the largest city in the country without government garbage service or a private monopoly protected by law.

After I had written and testified before city council about the harmful effects of government intrusion into the garbage business, a local garbage hauler called me. He wanted to explain how protected franchises—that is, government-protected private monopolies—were actually a good thing.

After a few minutes he realized that I wasn’t buying his arguments, so he made what I later labeled The Statement: “I support the free market just as much as you do, but….” The “but” in this case was the exception he felt should be made to protect his business from competition and consumer choice.

Over the years I’ve heard The Statement from business people who argue that the State of Oregon and local jurisdictions should continue protecting them from new competition in all sorts of industries. The Portland taxi cartel successfully protected its position for decades before Cascade and others helped a group of Ethiopian immigrants to enter the market with Green Cab in 1998. Then, in 2015 the expanded taxi cartel tried to rely on The Statement to fight off ridesharing companies like Uber until the new smartphone technology that enabled them gave consumers power to demand that local governments allow the transportation freedom they promised…and delivered.

At the Capitol in Salem, I heard The Statement from business lobbyists who argued that the free market was great…except that their clients should be protected from new competitors in the home moving and natural hair braiding fields. Of course, these lobbyists weren’t simply protecting the interests of their paying clients…no, they always argued that keeping competitors out was for the benefit of the public health and safety. Luckily for the public, these arguments failed; and it is now much easier for aspiring entrepreneurs to enter these fields in Oregon, providing more choices for consumers and more economic opportunities for themselves.

On the national scene we’re now hearing a version of The Statement when presidential candidates say something like, “I’m for free trade too, but….” Flawed economic arguments about foreigners “taking our jobs” and other nations harming America by somehow imposing trade deficits on us are trotted out to justify protecting some businesses against others, and against consumers.

Business people argue for government protection at their peril. If government is justified in controlling who can provide our garbage service, or taxi service, or natural hair braiding, then why shouldn’t it control who can sell us our food, clothing, and shelter—all things we cannot do without?

If government can deny us the right to buy products produced in other countries, or can slap high tariffs on those products so that we have to pay much higher prices, how is this protecting “we the public”? Isn’t it really protecting “they, the special business interests”?

Lest anyone mistakenly believe that Cascade Policy Institute is “pro-business,” we are not. Rather, we are pro-liberty, pro-free-markets, and pro-consumer-choice. We understand that the slippery slope to a government-controlled economy begins when capitalists fail to consistently defend capitalism. The resulting economy harms most consumers and businesses alike at the expense of those who work for and are protected by big government.

There may be a case for government limiting competition in some fields and subsidizing some businesses at the expense of others; it’s just not a free-market case.

If Socialism Is Like Playing Checkers, Capitalism Is Like Playing Chess

Now that former world chess champion Garry Kasparov has weighed into the American presidential campaign, it seems fitting to explain his support of capitalism and disdain for the socialism he lived under as a Soviet citizen in terms of the differences between playing chess and playing checkers.

When you hear the expression “We’re playing checkers, while they’re playing chess,” you understand that the speaker believes his opponents are playing a more sophisticated game. In this sense, socialism is a simple economic game: You see a problem and you assume that the government is the tool that will solve it. It’s relatively easy to sell a straightforward checker move to the public. It may be harder to sell a more sophisticated chess move, even if it is the better solution to your problem.

A fascinating commentary in AgainstCronyCapitalism.org points this out:

It rarely occurs to the people calling in the government that perhaps the government will create more problems than it solves. Indeed this concept is so foreign, that when something breaks in our society due to government intervention, the call by many is almost always for yet more government intervention. It’s ridiculous. But I wonder if it is just a reflection of a checkers mentality in a world which demands an understanding of chess. 

The free marketeer is more like the chess player.…

Free market people have a better understanding of chain reactions and of unintended consequences than their statist brothers and sisters. They think a few moves ahead while also understanding the limit of their foresight.…

Society is a living, breathing being. It is organic in nature. It spins out in fractal complexity in every direction. The free marketeer understands this and is humbled by this reality.

On March 1, Garry Kasparov’s self-described “rant” against Bernie Sanders’s socialist “prescription for America” went viral on Facebook, eliciting more than 3,300 comments. Over 63,000 people have shared it with their “friends.” Here it is:

Garry Kasparov

March 1 at 11:57am

I’m enjoying the irony of American Sanders supporters lecturing me, a former Soviet citizen, on the glories of Socialism and what it really means! Socialism sounds great in speech soundbites and on Facebook, but please keep it there. In practice, it corrodes not only the economy but the human spirit itself, and the ambition and achievement that made modern capitalism possible and brought billions of people out of poverty. Talking about Socialism is a huge luxury, a luxury that was paid for by the successes of capitalism. Income inequality is a huge problem, absolutely. But the idea that the solution is more government, more regulation, more debt, and less risk is dangerously absurd. 

Garry Kasparov Yes, please take Scandinavia as an example! Implementing some socialistic elements AFTER becoming a wealthy capitalist economy only works as long as you don’t choke off what made you wealthy to begin with in the process. Again, it’s a luxury item that shouldn’t be confused with what is really doing the work, as many do. And do not forget that nearly all of the countless 20th-century innovations and industries that made the rest of the developed world so efficient and comfortable came from America, and it wasn’t a coincidence. As long as Europe had America taking risks, investing ambitiously, and yes, being “inequal [sic],” it had the luxury of benefiting from the results without making the same sacrifices. Who will be America’s America?

Kasparov then followed up with this longer article amplifying on his points:

Garry Kasparov: Hey, Bernie, Don’t Lecture Me About Socialism. I Lived Through It.

I don’t know if Kasparov thinks of socialism and capitalism in terms of playing checkers versus chess, and I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says. But, his insights are important and worth considering by anyone and everyone considering what economic system has and will best serve America and the world.

The Crisis of Common Sense

I’ve taken two tours of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Though it was full of vivid history about the signers of the Declaration, it was nearly silent about one relatively unsung hero of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but it was his friend Thomas Paine who stirred the new nation to action.

Most literate Americans read Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, in the months before our country declared its independence from his native England on July 4, 1776. Later that year after the war for independence started, Paine published The Crisis, which began, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country, but he that stands now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

In Common Sense, Paine wrote, “Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” He argued for free trade and individual liberty with phrases that captured the imagination of his adopted countrymen.

Paine and Jefferson realized that government and society are not synonymous. They argued that government’s purpose is to protect the inalienable rights of the individuals that make up society. They understood that any right granted by government must be paid for by diminishing someone else’s right to life, liberty, or property. What would they think of today’s politicians in Washington, D.C. and Salem, Oregon who propose law after law ordaining right after right?

In the introduction to Common Sense, Paine wrote, “[A] long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”

Paine and Jefferson didn’t wait for time to convert people. We at Cascade Policy Institute aren’t waiting either; we’re providing the Intellectual Ammunition today’s freedom fighters need to win new battles for liberty.

Many Americans believe modern society requires more government control; we believe just the opposite. Free individuals are perfectly able to run their own lives today, just as they were in 1776. Paine and Jefferson would be dismayed at the size of modern governments, and so are we.

Read Common Sense and The Crisis this Independence Day, remember what the holiday is really all about, and do what you can to reinvigorate the ideals Jefferson and Paine proclaimed.

(This Cascade Commentary is adapted from Steve Buckstein’s President’s Corner column in the Summer 2001 Cascade Update newsletter.)

 

The Story Behind Thanksgiving That Every Elected Representative Should Know

The quintessential American holiday, Thanksgiving evolved from the Pilgrims’ celebrations to thank God for the harvests that saved Plymouth Colony. What most people didn’t learn in school is that nearly half the Mayflower Pilgrims died of starvation because many refused to work in the fields.

Plymouth Colony originally had a socialist economy. Land and crops were held in common. In the words of Governor William Bradford, “the young men who were most able objected to being forced to spend their time and strength working for other men’s wives and children without any recompense.” Collectivism incentivized colonists needlessly to rely on the efforts of others. Realizing this, Governor Bradford assigned each household its own plot of land. Families could keep what they produced or trade for things they needed. The result was a bountiful harvest in 1623.

Instituting private property and respecting the autonomy of the family unit caused Plymouth to survive. Collectivism and central planning produce scarcity. Private property, free markets, and personal responsibility lead to prosperity and plenty. And a healthy economy, with strong and independent families, enables a community to help those who genuinely need assistance. All are important lessons for America today from William Bradford’s first Thanksgiving.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Can Government Be Run Like a Business?

We’ve all heard the adage that government should run like a business. The problem is that it really can’t. Briefly, here are some of the reasons why:

  1. By its very nature, government is often a monopoly provider of whatever services it performs. Business, on the other hand, is subject to intense competition in a free marketplace.
  2. Government can afford to deliver sub-par service because it prohibits others from entering its market. This doesn’t mean that government employees want to deliver poor service, just that there is often no penalty when they do so.
  3. Government leaders have less incentive to eliminate waste in their operations because they have a captive revenue stream. Business leaders know that customers can pick up and leave, reducing the firm’s income at any time.
  4. Government’s “customers” have to pay for what the majority wants, while in a marketplace individual customers decide what they will pay for, no matter what others want.

None of these reasons imply that business owners are somehow nobler than government leaders. They simply must be more responsive to individual customers, and they must innovate and control costs in order to survive. Government leaders need only satisfy the majority of their “customers” because the minority, in effect, can’t easily take their business elsewhere.

Even faced with such obstacles, to their credit many government officials still try to operate in a more businesslike manner. A lecture hall full of such public servants spent a Saturday back in 1992 at Portland State University listening to an author of the book Reinventing Government try to help them out. Among other assumptions, the book postulated that government could become more efficient if it simply acted more entrepreneurial and less bureaucratic. This sounded good, until one realized that the authors may be confused about at least one key concept.

Co-author Ted Gaebler first asked his public employee audience to think more like profit-seeking capitalists so as to meet the needs of their constituents. However, later he explained that government might be able to do things more cheaply than the private sector because it doesn’t have to earn a profit.

So which is it? Is profit an indicator that you’re satisfying constituent demand, or is it a burden that raises prices on consumers?

Economists will tell you that in a competitive environment, profit is a signal that you’re meeting your customers’ needs. Profit actually can decrease prices, in part because profitable businesses can invest some of their profit into more efficient means of production.

The profit motive is often a key driving force for entrepreneurs who jump into a business because they see an unmet consumer need. They know that unless they can provide better, cheaper goods and services than their competitors, they won’t attract enough customers to cover costs, let alone earn a profit.

One clear example of the profit motive benefitting consumers is what happened when Wal-Mart launched an aggressive program in 2007 offering 30-day supplies of common generic drugs for just $4. Soon, Fred Meyer, Safeway, Walgreens, and others retailers decided to match that low price rather than risk losing customers to a competitor. Each of these big chains is a for-profit company. Yet, each realized that to make profits in health care, they needed to offer something that would attract and retain customers.

Taking the profit out of that health care segment wouldn’t have done anything to significantly reduce prices and save customers billions of dollars over the last five or six years. Who believes that government-centralized drug purchasing, or price controls, would have dropped monthly prescription prices down to just $4 each?

The “profit motive is bad” fallacy is just that―a fallacy.

While government can’t employ the profit motive directly, it can do so indirectly by contracting out some functions to profit-seeking enterprises. When done correctly, contracting out can allow profit to become a signal of citizen satisfaction in public services and can reduce the cost of those services.

Of course, contracting out public services doesn’t guarantee good service and taxpayer savings. Private firms can make mistakes just as governments do. They sometimes fail to meet customer needs, and sometimes they break the law and cheat their customers. But unlike government, most poorly run firms either go out of business as customers flee or change their ways to retain them. To flee a poorly run government, most of the time we have to pick up our family and move to another city, county, or state.

Finally, even if we agree that business should try to maximize revenue and profits, that should not be government’s primary goal. Rather than maximize revenue, government should maximize individual and economic liberty. In today’s modern world, it can only do that by reducing its size and scope.

For example, our Founding Fathers envisioned a government that would protect our lives, liberty, and property. It was not designed to provide our alcohol (OLCC), jobs (picking winners and losers in the marketplace), and entertainment (Oregon Lottery). Getting Oregon’s state, county, and local governments out of these services does not follow a business model; it follows a liberty model.

We can ask no more of our government leaders than that they protect our rights and otherwise leave us alone to pursue our own interests. That is the American way.

Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Freedom First

On July 4 we pay homage to the founding of our country. I wonder, however, if we are living up to the vision and courage of our Founding Fathers.

Freedom was the key to their view: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Of course, security was a concern to our Founding Fathers, as evidenced by their statement in the Declaration of Independence that governments are instituted to protect rights. They knew that rights need to be protected. The Constitution is explicit about the President being commander-in-chief and Congress having the power to declare war, so security was on their minds.

Yet, while our founders were aware of the value of security, their decision to revolt placed freedom above security. What could be more dangerous than revolution against the strongest power in the world? A revolutionary war invariably causes death, not just to the rebels but to innocent civilians as well. The founders made their decision: Freedom must come first.

What could happen to a revolutionary? Those who took up arms against the Crown were at risk of being killed by a royal musket ball. Even those revolutionaries who were too old for combat risked capture and a royal noose. Their security was not at all enhanced by defying the Crown. Yet, defy it they did, imperiling their lives.

What about economic success? Our founders considered economic gain to be a worthy goal. Many of them had entered into business, as merchants or developers. A few were wealthy and most were well to do. What could be more threatening to economic welfare than a war fought at home? Some may claim that war is good for the economy; but it’s never claimed when the war is being fought amid one’s own farms, factories, and stores. The Revolutionary War was not a profit opportunity, but a cost that our founders were willing to pay to secure freedom for themselves and their families and succeeding generations.

One might suppose the founders believed a successful revolution eventually would lead to greater security, but that assumption could not possibly survive a serious cost-benefit analysis. A bloody civil war is invariably devastating to the economy. The direct risk from the Revolutionary War was great, and normal police protections are often lost during times of war. One can imagine a Founding Father thinking that in the long run, freedom would be good for the economy. None were so foolish as to think that a revolutionary war would be good in the short term. The Founding Fathers risked their fortunes and livelihoods in the cause. Today, with our very slow economic recovery, politicians are grasping at any straw that might boost people’s standard of living. Our founders, however, traded their own economic welfare for a higher value.

Today, we wonder how many of our civil liberties we must give up to be safe. We wonder how much freedom of choice we must give up to have “affordable” health care. We seldom wonder what price freedom is worth. Our founders calculated that cost carefully when they pledged, in support of the Declaration, “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” It is for us living in 2013 to be worthy of the sacrifices our Founding Fathers made back in 1776.

The key to the founders’ decision is found at the end of the Declaration of Independence that we celebrate this week: “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

What would happen today if we were in a similar crisis? Those in political power now would quake at the thought of a single life lost here at home, if that life might have been saved through reduced liberty. Those in political power would say, “It’s the economy, stupid,” if a protection of liberty might have an impact on the economy. As for the third price pledged by our Founding Fathers, “our sacred honor”―it is highly valued in homes across the country, though not so much by many in leadership.

Today, let us rededicate ourselves to the fundamental principle of freedom, a principle more important than safety or wealth. Let us be worthy of our Founding Fathers.

William B. Conerly, Ph.D. is the principal of Conerly Consulting, an economic and financial consulting firm, and chairman of the board of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market research center.

Imagine a World…

Imagine a world where we buy our groceries in government stores. We can only shop at the store nearest our house. If we want to shop somewhere else, we’re forced to move our family into another neighborhood―if we can afford it.

 

In this imaginary world, we elect food boards to oversee our grocery stores. And many of us think the food is free. Well, not quite. We all pay taxes to the government, which then recycles those dollars to grocery store districts and eventually down to our neighborhood stores. We think we eat pretty well, although the government spends five dollars for a gallon of milk and six-fifty for a loaf of bread. The bread is often stale and the milk sour.

 

Each district has a central office staff of specialists and administrators who work hard designing store shelves, checkout lanes, and (most importantly) the nutritional content of every food item. Since we’re a nation that separates Church and State, the big battles at food board meetings often revolve around whether stores can sell Christmas cookies.

 

Now, imagine that voters decide to give the government less money for the public food system. Suddenly, food stores find themselves in a crisis. There isn’t enough tax money to keep food district central bureaucracies intact. Stores don’t have enough money to keep all the clerks employed. Food superintendents are faced with the difficult task of eliminating some items from the shelves.

 

How could we possibly feed ourselves without the government taxing us, building big brick food buildings, and telling us where to shop?

 

If this imaginary world―and its problems―sounds familiar, you’re way ahead of me. It’s the world of our public school system. It’s the world most of us grew up in. Our parents grew up in the same world, but children now are growing up in a different world.

 

We can no longer afford to dump more money into a system that isn’t keeping pace with the progress all around us. Technology has opened limitless ways for students to gain knowledge and skills and to interact with their instructors and peers. The landscape of educational options centered on the needs and aspirations of individual students is far more diverse than it was even ten years ago.

Many advocate that we should lead the world in education spending. But you don’t get to be the competitive leader in any industry by being the world’s highest-cost producer. Don’t you want to be the producer with the highest quality, but at an affordable cost? The driving force to achieve high quality, while keeping costs down, is the profit motive. But that’s exactly the motive that doesn’t exist in our public school system.

 

Why aren’t we worried about a tax revolt decimating our local grocery store shelves? It’s because our grocery stores are private. They’re subject to intense competition, and each of us has virtually unlimited choices about where we shop.

 

For those who can’t afford food, we don’t build government food stores. We give them food stamps, and they shop in the same stores and for the same products that everyone else does. In essence, our public schools are the equivalent of the former Soviet Union’s collective farms. Communism said government should own and run the food stores―and the farms. The result was a nation that couldn’t feed itself.

 

We don’t have to ask whether to replace our current public school system with a private one. We can simply let education dollars be spent where the customers (parents) think they should go.

 

Please don’t let the details of any specific “school choice” proposal stop you from accepting the concept. Instead, let’s figure out why so many of our tax dollars don’t reach the classroom―and why nearly half the people who work for our public school system don’t teach. Let’s look for ways to put the children first and the system second.

 

The only proven way to accomplish these things is through competition and parental choice. Spending more dollars in the current system will just get us more of the same. Many states are broke, preventing them from spending more money on public schools. And many parents are fed up, wondering why their kids are underperforming or unmotivated in K-12 schools and unprepared for their college courses and future careers.

 

School choice has entered a new world. Because Americans are increasingly vocal about providing parents at every income level with the ability to choose their children’s schools, states are adopting broad-based school choice initiatives.

 

Every child who drops out of school, or who graduates functionally illiterate, is being tossed into the sea without a lifeboat. If you think rearranging the deck chairs on this ship will save those children, think again. The way of the future is to put the power of educational choice back into the hands of parents, where it belongs.

 

Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Sailing Competitive Seas

By William B. Conerly, Ph.D.

I picked up my beer at the yacht club’s bar and went out on the deck to watch the last few boats come in. It had been a good day’s sailing. We finished the race in the middle of the fleet, but we had a couple of new stories to tell. When John grabbed the chair next to me, I was all set to talk about the wind shift that had helped us at the end. John, though, had other interests.

 

“Tell me, Doctor, what are we going to do about these Japanese imports?” John asked.

 

I sail on the weekends; Monday through Friday I’m an economist. Even though I love economics, I didn’t want to spend the whole cocktail hour talking about it.

 

“Did you do the race to Drake’s Bay three years ago?” I asked. Without waiting for his answer I began my story. “After we rounded the point and turned north, a light fog set in. It wasn’t thick enough to be dangerous, but we couldn’t see the other boats.”

 

“I remember that one,” John said. “I never did figure out where the wind was that day, but everyone else seemed to find it. I think I was third from last.”

 

I continued: “After about two hours we happened to sail close enough to another boat to see her. It was Fred’s boat, which is pretty competitive with ours. We sailed side by side, about a hundred yards apart, and she was pulling away from us.”

 

“You should have been able to keep up with her,” John said. “You’ve beaten her plenty of times.”

 

“That’s what we thought. So we started looking around and decided to ease the Cunningham a bit.”

 

Racing a sailboat isn’t as simple as letting the wind catch the sails and push it along. The sails are airfoils, like airplane wings, but with an added complication: Being made of fabric, the curvature of the sails isn’t fixed in place. We have thirteen separate controls that will change the sail’s shape in one way or another.

 

The Cunningham is one of those thirteen.

 

“It was hard to tell at first, but it looked like we were no longer losing to her. We put two good fellows on the sheets—and we started to gain ground. We even got a little ahead of her.”

 

John asked if we had kept our lead. We hadn’t. After we got moving a bit faster, the other boat picked up speed. It took them 20 minutes to find the trick, and I don’t know what they did, but just as we were feeling confident, they got their boat moving definitely faster than ours.

 

“Rob looked up at the mainsail. You know how he’s so quiet. He softly said, ‘Maybe there’s too much mast bend. Can we let off on the backstay a bit?’ The mast looked fine to me, but on the rare occasions when Rob talks, we all listen.

 

“We eased the backstay a little, and then watched the speedometer. We picked up a tenth of a knot in no time, and started to gain on them.”

 

“Sounds like a game of leapfrog,” John remarked.

 

“It was. Pretty soon we couldn’t find any more gains out of sail trim. But watching Fred’s boat helped us spot a tired helmsman right away. I had been steering for 45 minutes when they pulled out on us. I felt fine, or thought I did, but when Murphy took the wheel he brought our speed right back up.”

 

“How did you finish the race?”

 

“First and second. Turns out we were the only two boats to have been in sight of anyone else for most of the race. We took second, which is too bad, but that was one of our best finishes the whole summer.”

 

“It sounds to me like you have that other boat to thank for your good finish, even if they did beat you.”

 

“Exactly. A speedometer tells you how fast you are going, but it doesn’t tell you how fast you could be going. You need a competitor to tell you if you have greater potential. It’s easy to think that you’re doing your best, but usually you aren’t. Besides,” I continued, “we were able to learn a trick from him. When the wind turned light and we were wallowing in the swells, we saw that he had vanged his boom down hard. We weren’t used to doing that, but we gave it a try and it helped.

 

“All the other crews thought they were doing their best, but they couldn’t see the other boats because of the fog. I know most of the other crews and they’re not lazy. It’s just hard to be fast when you’re out there by yourself.”

 

John finished his beer and stood up. “Well, Doctor, I’ve got to run. Thanks for the story. But I really would like to sit down some time and talk with you about the danger of foreign competition.”

 

“I thought that’s what we’ve been talking about,” I replied.

William B. Conerly, Ph.D. is the principal of Conerly Consulting, an economic and financial consulting firm, and chairman of the board of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market research center. An avid sailor, he races his sailboat Strange Bird as often as he can.

Ideas Matter, and So Do Institutions

When Cascade was founded in 1991, I was in my 12th year as executive director of the Oregon Environmental Council. Before that I had worked for a national environmental group based in New York. I was an unlikely candidate to ever lead a free-market think tank.

While I was not immediately aware that Cascade had been formed 20 years ago, I was aware that my own views about environmental protection were changing. The large sources of smokestack pollution I had seen as a boy growing up in northern New Jersey were well-controlled by the 1990s. Chronic urban smog, largely the result of auto emissions mixing with other chemicals in the presence of sunlight, had been permanently eliminated in most major cities due to dramatically improved auto technology. With virtually all pollution trends moving downward, things were so much better that environmental activists were increasingly looking for things to do just to keep busy (though they would never admit that).

In 1992 a friend suggested I take a look at Reason magazine, the journal of policy and culture published by the Reason Foundation. Becoming a subscriber opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about how we organize ourselves as a society and prompted me to think critically about natural resource policy. At roughly the same time, Oregon economist Randal O’Toole began publishing Different Drummer, a journal for “libertarian environmentalists.” I had a hard time even understanding that phrase, but I had followed Randal’s work for over a decade (pioneering the use of economic analysis of public land timber sales) and had a lot of respect for his thinking. Different Drummer regularly showed how large, intrusive government inevitably created incentives that resulted in both economic inefficiency and environmental destruction.

In 1994 Cascade Policy Institute sponsored its first Better Government Competition (BGC), which it billed as a “statewide citizens suggestion box” for ideas about how to reduce the size of government or to improve the delivery of government services. For some random reason I received a copy of the announcement, and since there were cash prizes available (always a good incentive), I carefully read it over. After thinking about it I submitted an idea related to electronic tolling of roads and variable (peak-hour) pricing.

My concept was not named one of the 10 finalists, but I enjoyed writing it and it introduced me to Cascade’s work in a more personal way. As I received announcements about CPI events, I began attending just to check out this whole free-market policy scene. I went to a Cascade lunch featuring José Piñera, the world’s leading authority on converting Social Security programs to asset accounts. That was quite a refreshing presentation.

I also attended a small meeting where I was introduced to Ted Kolderie from Minnesota, the father of the charter school movement. The meeting was facilitated by Cascade, though CPI’s co-founder Steve Buckstein now admits he thought the whole charter school concept was never going to work. So much for predictions!

I also went to a highly entertaining CPI presentation by Marshall Fritz, who made a compelling argument for a complete return of education services to the private sector on a voluntary, market-driven basis.

By 1995 it had become clear to me that the environmental movement was no longer focused on protecting the environment; it had been taken over by people who were much more interested in simply controlling people’s lives. Oregon land-use planning in particular had become a nightmare that was destroying the lives of thousands of people, for no reason other than the planner obsession for control. And federal forest regulation in the wake of the Spotted Owl litigation had placed thousands of Oregon workers on the unemployment list, while turning federal forests into museums that we could look at but not touch. I knew that my time at the Environmental Council was drawing to a close.

In 1996 Cascade sponsored its second BGC, and I entered it again. This time I suggested selling the Elliott State Forest and placing the proceeds (estimated at the time to be $880 million or more) into the Common School Fund to finance a school voucher program. I was named one of the 10 winners of the 1996 competition (apparently the judges were better that year); and in the process of converting my concept into a business plan, I got to know the early CPI staff – Steve, Tracie Sharp, Kurt Weber and Patrick Stephens. We had fun visiting in the office and at events, but it never crossed my mind that I might eventually work there.

However, in the spring of 1996 I announced my resignation from OEC, effective October of that year. I had pushed the OEC board as far as I could in the direction of free-market environmentalism, but they would not go any further. And my public questioning of land-use regulation and the Portland obsession with light rail made it clear that we needed to part company. I had no master plan for my next step and no job offers, but I knew it was time to leave.

In November and December of 1996, I began enjoying being out of the work force for the first time in my adult life and occasionally dropped by the CPI office to chat. On one of those visits, Steve engaged me in a long conversation (which turned out to be my job interview), and then asked if I would like to work full-time at Cascade to promote a property rights-based approach to environmental policy. I didn’t really know what it would mean to be an analyst with CPI, and I’d have to take a pay cut from my previous job, but I decided that working at Cascade would be fun. And professionally, it was a relief to know that Cascade was a place where I would never be too radical when it came to limiting the scope of government!

So now I’m in my 15th year at Cascade. Steve works for me (where he is happy to be out of management), and two of the three founding board members – Dave Gore and Bill Udy – are still serving. Our annual budget has gone up from $67,000 to $1.1 million, and our staff includes 12 people. We’ve evolved from the traditional “think tank” role of publishing papers and hosting speakers; we’re now very active in state legislative affairs and routinely send our analysts around the state to engage people and encourage their activism at a grassroots level.

Among think-tankers it’s common to hear the phrase “ideas matter,” and that’s true. But ideas by themselves rarely change society. We also need social change agents. We need institutions that can nurture ideas, market them, engage potential allies, and help tear down the various Berlin Walls that separate selected fields of state-dominated policy (such as the monopolies in education, highways, transit and public lands) from the marketplace. We need organizations that can attract unlikely supporters – like former leaders of environmental groups – into a growing parade for freedom.

Now in its 20th year, Cascade Policy Institute has changed my life, by taking ideas espoused by Madison, Jefferson, Friedman and others and making them policy-relevant to contemporary times. Cascade’s stated mission – to promote “individual liberty, economic opportunity and personal responsibility” – is one that I am passionate about. We are changing lives, one step at a time, and it is very rewarding to play a role in this process.

Cascade still has a lot of work to do, but we are gaining new supporters almost every day. The freedom parade is growing, and we appreciate everything you have done to make this happen.

 

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